Possession Island, known to the local Kaurareg Aboriginal peoples as Bedanug, is a small and seemingly insignificant island of the tip of Cape York, the most northerly point of mainland Australia. It was here, just before sunset on Wednesday 22nd August 1770, that British navigator Lieut. James Cook came ashore and took possession of the east coast of Australia under the name of South Wales (he later amended it to New South Wales), for the King of England, His Majesty King George III, and set in motion a series of events that resulted in the establishment of the colony of New South Wales and later the commonwealth of Australia. A cairn marks the location.
It could be said that it was here where all of Australia's recent land control battles started. It is ironic that the place of possession is not on the Australian Mainland; and the reason? Cook feared the Aborigines of the area were hostile, so he decided to make possession on an uninhabited island!
Cook recorded the event thus: "As I was about to quit the eastern coast of New Holland, which I had coasted from latitude 38 deg. to this place, and which I am confident no European had ever seen before, I once more hoisted English colours, and though I had already taken possession of several particular parts, I now took possession of the whole eastern coast, from latitude 38 deg. to this place, latitude 10 deg. 30 min., in right of his Majesty King George the Third, by the name of New South Wales, with all the bays, harbours, rivers, and islands situated upon it. We then fired three volleys of small arms, which were answered by the same number from the ship."
Cook had recorded signs that the coast was inhabited during the voyage north, and here he noted as he returned to the ship the great number of fires on all the land and islands about them, 'a certain sign they are Inhabited'. Cook then sailed through Torres Strait, returning to England in May 1771.
Cook gave the lands he had charted and claimed a new name; New Wales (he later amended it to New South Wales). When he claimed New South Wales for the British Crown on 22nd August 1770, his claim covered all the lands he had explored. The point of possession was the most easterly point he had visited, it was also and that point was located 142 degrees west of Greenwich, which placed it right on the line of demarkation between Portuguese and Spanish territory as determined by the Treaty of Saragossa or Treaty of Zaragoza, signed on 22nd April 1529.
By claiming only territory he had visited, Cook was in fact claiming territory up to that line and no further, which amounted to the whole of that part of Australia which fell in Spain's half of the world. It is presumed that, to Cook, Dutch territory in New Holland would have extended east to that line of demarkation since the Dutch were aligned with the Portuguese. Britain had no quarms about walking in and taking over territory in Spain's half of the world, as evidenced by the Nootka Sound Incident of 1790 which brought the matter of international territory ownership to a head and resulted in the rules being changed forever, but Britain had no argument with the Portuguese or Dutch and respected their territorial rights and claims.
It was with great relief that Cook passed out of the reef and into Torres Strait. He realised that the waters he was now entering had been well plotted by years of Dutch and Portuguese presence, and therefore ceased charting the voyage. His route was to the coast of New Guinea, then west along the southern coast of Java and around the west end of the island into Batavia. He arrived home in England on 13th July 1771. The Voyage of the Endeavour
There have been a number of cairns and monuments at this site where Cook took possession but all were vandalised. The most recent monument was erected as a bicentennial project in 1788 and is almost indestructible.
John Alexander Gilfillan's painting titled 'Captain Cook taking possession of the Australian continent on behalf of the British Crown' is universally used to illustrate the taking possession on Possession Island. It was presented to the Philosophical Society of Victoria in 1889. Banks' greyhound is watching two men skin a kangaroo near the tent on the left of the painting. National Library of Australia.
The only problem with this painting is that does not depict Possession Island - anyone who has been there knows it doesn't look like this. Some say the painting depicts Botany Bay, but anyone who has been there knows that the lay of the land there is not as depicted either. One can only assume it is a depiction of how he saw the incident in his mind's eye, perhaps based on eyewitness accounts.
Possession Island National Park comprises two continental islands Possession and Eborac islands with a total area of 508 hectares. Possession Island is in the Gulf of Carpentaria, approximately 17km south-west of the tip of Cape York Peninsula in North Queensland. Eborac Island is about 1km north of the tip of Cape York Peninsula.
The nearest mainland communities are Seisia and Bamaga, approximately 25km south of the tip of Cape York Peninsula. Access to Possession Island National Park is by charter or private boat. A public boat ramp is located at Seisia, approximately 11km south of Possession Island. No roads, walking tracks or public facilities are provided on the national park. Camping, resort, lodge and guest house accommodation is available on the mainland in Seisia, 12km south of Possession Island, and Bamaga, 5km further south of Seisia, near the tip of Cape York Peninsula.
On Eborac Island, the lighthouse plays an important role for shipping navigation in the waters of the Torres Strait.
Possession Island National Park provides habitat for several species of bats. During the day, bat colonies roost in caves and abandoned mine shafts on the island. At night they leave their roosts to prey on moths and other insects. Some hunt above the low open woodlands and melaleuca swamps while others hunt below the vine forest canopy. Do not enter mine shafts or caves on these islands. They are unstable and may collapse or the vulnerable bats will be disturbed.
A variety of birds can be seen among the islands vegetation including olive-backed sunbirds, mistletoebirds, Australasian figbirds, noisy friarbirds, rose-crowned fruit-doves, black-faced cuckoo-shrikes and rainbow lorikeets. On the shore, coastal birds such as whimbrels, eastern reef egrets and beach stone-curlews stalk the shallows while white-bellied sea-eagles and lesser frigatebirds soar overhead.
Reptiles living on the islands include several small skinks and Merten s water monitors, while mammal sightings include little red flying-foxes and short-beaked echidnas. Abandoned mineshafts and caves provide roosting sites for breeding colonies of bats. Three species of bats are known to inhabit Possession Island - the eastern bent-wing bat.
Brief History: Since European colonisation, the Kaurareg people have maintained their traditional laws and customs and links with their homelands through continued visitation and the passing on of traditional songs and stories associated with the area. They have continued to live on or close to their traditional country, despite forced removal to Moa Island in 1922, and make use of the land and sea resources, according to their traditional customs and knowledge.
On Possession Island, on 22 August 1770, Cook hoisted the English colours and took possession of the whole eastern coast of Australia. A monument in recognition of the visit has been erected on the headland above the beach where Cook raised the flag in 1770. Post-colonial European contact with the islands began with nineteenth century maritime industries. In 1846, John Sweatman, on the Castlereagh, noted the small schooner Ariel anchored and engaged in collecting trepang (beche-de-mer) and tortoiseshell among the islands. By 1880, pearling operations in the area involved four vessels.
Gold was discovered on Possession Island in 1896. Production in the Possession Island Gold and Mineral Field began in 1897. The mines and other workings are located near the north-west coast of the island. The main workings were located on two almost vertical reefs of quartz veins. Mining continued until 1906 when the leases were abandoned. Attempts were made to reopen the workings in 1919, and again in 1934 35, but without success. Between 1897 and 1905, a total of 155.42kg of gold was produced from 7245t of ore (including some returns for the Horn Island Gold and Mineral Field). Today the abandoned workings include several mine shafts and small cuts.